The Atlantic Launches a Bohemian’s Career: Whitman’s Sea-Mysteries in “Bardic Symbols”

[For the July 4 holiday: A slightly modified re-post from the early days.]

Whitman at 37 in July 1854. Steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer of a daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison (original lost). From the frontispiece to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Wikipedia.) Click to enlarge.

At the beginning of 1860 Walt Whitman was a poet of some renown. Two editions of Leaves of Grass had been published; the first (Brooklyn: 1855) contained 12 poems; the second (Brooklyn: 1856) 32. His hope of receiving a critical stamp of approval from the foremost American intellectual, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was more than gratified when Emerson responded (Concord, July 21, 1855) to his unsolicited letter enclosing the first edition of the book: “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” Emerson’s praise did not stop there; he went on: “I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, and which large perception only can inspire.” And to make this response the more remarkable, Emerson said he had a “wish to see my benefactor, and have felt much like striking my tasks, and visiting New York to pay you my respects.”

Such a review from such a source is not something that every novice poet receives. Whitman did not hide his candle under a bushel. He had the letter printed in the October 10, 1855 issue of the New York Tribune which had previously faulted the collection. The paper prefaced the letter by saying: “We some time since had occasion to call the attention of our readers to this original and striking collection of poems, by Mr. Whitman of Brooklyn. In so doing we could not avoid noticing certain faults which seemed to us to be prominent in the work. The following opinion, from a distinguished source, views the matter from a more positive and less critical stand-point.” Not satisfied in using the letter to settle a score with the Tribune Whitman had the letter printed as an appendix to the second edition of the collection. (Over the years Whitman has taken some heat for his brazen promotional use of the letter. The letter itself, however, looks like it was designed for such use; in any event it didn’t seem to have offended Emerson.) Emerson in fact visited Whitman in Manhattan that year. The next year another representative from Concord would visit him, this time venturing into Brooklyn. Bronson Alcott, turgid writer and iconoclastic educator, began a lifelong friendship with Whitman with his October 1856 visit. (His daughter Louisa May had published her first work, a collection of fantasies, 7 years earlier. In 1860 she would have a story published, “Love and Self-Love,” in the Atlantic Magazine one month before Whitman’s poem appeared. Like Whitman she would spend some of the war in hospitals.) Bronson a month later brought to Brooklyn to see Whitman another representative from the seat of American high culture, Henry David Thoreau. Whitman would also during these years become acquainted with the artistic talents that Manhattan produced.

But even in those days, when people actually read new poetry, poet was not an occupation. In fact, Whitman was still scurrying about trying to make ends meet. It did not help that he stayed around Brooklyn and Manhattan, then as now more interested in commercial than intellectual matters. Although he had tried teaching on a couple of occasions, he was either not good at it or not interested in it. He also seemed to lack the discipline or inspiration to write fiction or extended prose. (He had written a temperance novel in 1842, Franklin Evans; or, the Inebriate.  He later called it “damned rot”—an opinion you can quickly confirm here.) His poetry by the standards of the day (and even now) was sui generis. And so he was required to take menial labor jobs in the printing business. In 1857 he became an editor of a Brooklyn paper but by 1859 lost that job.  According to William Dean Howells Whitman also pursued the dollar in a way many current struggling Manhattan artists do—he drove hack.

Debauchery at the Vault at Pabst in an early 1860s depiction by the New York Illustrated News. There must have been protests because shortly thereafter the Illustrated News printed a “corrected” illustration with sober gentlement at a table discussion literature. (Lehigh University Digital Library.) Click to enlarge.

During this time Whitman became an habitué of Pfaff’s beer hall. Pfaff’s was one of those places that fly under the radar of notice of polite society (and usually history) but provide a meeting place for nonconformists of all stripes. Pfaff’s brought together a remarkable assortment of serious modern literary novices, sexual nonconformists, actors, future critics and biographers and the like. The cellar provided a meeting place for serious literary discussions, sexual hook-ups, hedonism, and alcohol-fueled carousing. It  became the epicenter of Bohemian culture, whose members made the recently deceased New Yorker Edgar Allan Poe, a notorious alcoholic and occasional blackout drunk, their patron saint. Among the remarkable array of patrons were future literary lion William Dean Howells (who went once and endured the Bohemianism in order to make the contacts that would jump start his career), the future great American landscape painter and water colorist Winslow Homer (who would soon begin his career with war illustrations), political cartoonist Thomas Nast, future poet, novelist and Atlantic contributor Elizabeth Barstow Stoddard as well as her husband, critic and poet Richard Henry Stoddard (who later denied he had ever set foot in the place), future Atlantic editor Thomas Aldrich, “Hashesh Eater” Fitz Hugh Ludlow, and popular essayist and poet for Vanity Fair, Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly George Arnold.  The future French premier Georges Clemenceau, writing for a French paper in New York City at the time, claimed to have had a reserved table at Pfaff’s.  (Clemenceau was a patron after Whitman had gone off to observe the war.) Sexually liberated women frequented Pfaff’s. Ada Clare, who famously bore a child out of wedlock to pianist and once popular composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, became known as the “Queen of Bohemia.” Pfaff’s was also the center of the “man-man” love group known as the Fred Gay Association.  At the time Whitman appeared to have had an affair with group memember Frederick Vaughan, a fellow hack driver, who greatly supported Whitman through the publication of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, who was probably the inspiration for Whitman’s Calamus poems, which celebrated the “manly love of comrades,” and who later deserted Whitman, got married and had 4 children, and rarely had contact with Whitman again.

Whitman’s great champion Henry Clapp, Jr. (Lehigh Digital Library.)

The literary organ of Bohemia was the New York Saturday Press, a lively literary weekly with poems, fiction, criticism and other comment, edited by Henry Clapp Jr., who after tasting the wine of Parisian leftist thought and café high culture, returned to New York to found an avant-garde coterie who would contribute to an honest intellectual production.  The newspaper noted that it proudly (and perhaps uniquely) refused payment for favorable reviews.  It provided a regular forum for Ada Clare’s views on women and other things.  It tirelessly promoted Leaves of Grass.  William Dean Howells would much later—at a time when he no longer flirted with Bohemianism (in an article entitled “First Impressions of Literary New York” for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, June 1895, p63)—describe the New York Saturday Press as the literary production which

“really embodied the new literary life of the city. It was clever, and full of the wit that tries its teeth upon everything. It attacked all literary shams but its own, and it made itself felt and feared. The young writers throughout the country were ambitious to be seen in it, and they gave their best to it; they gave literally, for the Saturday Press never paid in anything but hopes of paying, vaguer even than promises. It is not too much to say that it was very nearly as well for one to be accepted by the Press as to be accepted by the Atlantic, and for the time there was no other literary comparison. To be in it was to be in the company of Fitz James O’Brien, Fitzhugh Ludlow, Mr. Aldrich, Mr. Stedman, and whoever else was liveliest in prose or loveliest in verse at that day in New York. It was a power, and although it is true that, as Henry Giles said of it, ‘Man cannot live by snapping turtle alone,’ the Press was very good snapping-turtle.”

One of the key characteristics of the group who ran and clustered about the place was their virulent hatred of the literary capital of America (“First Impressions,” p64):

“I had found there a bitterness against Boston as great as the bitterness against respectability, and as Boston was then rapidly becoming my second country, I could not join in the scorn thought of her and said of her by the Bohemians. I fancied a conspiracy among them to shock the literary pilgrim, and to minify the precious emotions he had experienced in visiting other shrines; but I found no harm in that, for I knew just how much to be shocked, and I thought I knew better how to value certain things of the soul than they. Yet when their chief asked me how I got on with Hawthorne, and I began to say that he was very shy and I was rather shy, and the king of Bohemia took his pipe out to break in upon me with “Oh, a couple of shysters!” and the rest laughed, I was abashed all they could have wished, and was not restored to myself till one of them said that the thought of Boston made him as ugly as sin: then I began to hope again that men who took themselves so seriously as that need not be taken very seriously by me.”

(An extensive history of New York’s Bohemia, including digitalized images of The New York Saturday Press can be found at the very valuable site The Vault at Pfaff’s, maintained by Lehigh University.)

Having been ogled at by the Boston literati and accepted by the New York Bohemians must have been bracing for Whitman.  Since 1856 he had produced nearly 100 more poems for Leaves of Grass (for which he was searching for another publisher).  Howells reflected that it was the embrace of Bohemia that saved Whitman (“First Impressions,” p65):

“who, when the Saturday Press took it up, had as hopeless a case with the critics on either side of the ocean as any man could have.  It was not till long afterward that his English admirers began to discover him, and to make his countrymen some noisy reproaches for ignoring him; they were wholly in the dark concerning him when the Saturday Press, which first stood his friend and the young men whom the Press gathered about it, made him their cult.  No doubt he was more valued because he was so offensive in some ways than he would have been if he had been in no way offensive, but it remains a fact that they celebrated him quite as much as was good for them.” (To see an illustration of Howells meeting Whitman at Pfaff’s, see “First Impressions” at p67.)

Nevertheless, 1860 found Whitman still retailing poems and, more remarkable given the precipice facing the country, writing poems about the oneness of America. On Christman eve 1859, the New York Saturday Press published his “A Child’s Reminiscence.” Clapp offered it as a Christmas gift to his readers. True to his publishing honesty, Clapp published on the following January 7 a review from the Cincinnati Commercial.  It began:

“The author of Leaves of Grass has perpetrated another ‘poem.’ The N. Y. Saturday Press, in whose columns, we regret to say, it appears, calls it ‘a curious warble.’ Curious, it may be; but warble it is not, in any sense of that mellifluous word. It is a shade less heavy and vulgar than the Leaves of Grass, whose unmitigated badness seemed to cap the climax of poetic nuisances. But the present performance has all the emptiness, without half the grossness, of the author’s former efforts.”

The anonymous author used the occasion to unleash a broadside against Whitman:

“Perhaps our readers are blissfully ignorant of the history and achievements of Mr. Walt Whitman. Be it known, then, that he is a native and resident of Brooklyn, Long Island, born and bred in an obscurity from which it were well that he never had emerged. A person of coarse nature, and strong, rude passions, he has passed his life in cultivating, not the amenities, but the rudeness of character; and instead of tempering his native ferocity with the delicate influences of art and refined literature, he has studied to exaggerate his deformities, and to thrust into his composition all the brute force he could muster from a capacity not naturally sterile in the elements of strength. He has undertaken to be an artist, without learning the first principle of art, and has presumed to put forth ‘poems,’ without possessing a spark of the poetic faculty. He affects swagger and independence, and blurts out his vulgar impertinence under a full assurance of ‘originality.'”

January 7 found Whitman trying to hawk his “A Chant of National Feuillage” to Harpers Magazine.  The magazine rejected it. The 16th found him trying to sell “Thoughts” to the New York Saturday Courier. On January 20 Whitman found out that James Russell Lowell of the Atlantic Magazine accepted “Bardic Symbols” for publication. Ultra Bostonian Lowell was squeemish about two lines (after line 3 in stanza XVIII) which he proposed cutting:

(See from my dead lips the ooze exuding at last!
See the prismatic colors glistening and rolling!)

Whitman said that the lines intended “an effect in the piece which I clearly feel, but cannot as clearly define.”  He nevertheless agreed to their omission. (They were put back in when he published it in the third edition of Leaves of Grass, where the poem was included as untitled “Leaves of Grass” number 1, at pp195-99. The lines are in Stanza 16 at p199.)

Personal note to Whitman from William W. Thayer on back of letter (August 17, 1860) discussing the possible purchase of Clapp’s New-York Saturday Press. (The Walt Whitman Archive.) Click to enlarge.

And then, in February, Whitman got the best news of all.  A new publishing firm in Boston wrote offering to publish the new edition of Leaves of Grass. The firm of two young men, William Wilde Thayer and Charles W. Eldridge offered to either “buy the stereotype plates of Leaves of Grass, or pay you for the use of them” in addition to the regular royalties (which would be 10%).  More importantly perhaps the publishers gratified his feelings as well as promised to promote the book vigorously:

“Now we want to be known as the publishers of Walt. Whitman’s books, and put our name as such under his, on title pages.—If you will allow it we can and will put your books into good form, and style attractive to the eye; we can and will sell a large number of copies; we have great facilities by and through numberless Agents in selling. We can dispose of more books than most publishing houses (we do not “puff” here but speak truth).”

The deal was good enough to have soon have Whitman in Boston to supervise production and there meet again Emerson and others of the transcendental persuasion. Fred Vaughan wrote to Whitman there offering to introduce him to stage driver friends of his: “If you want to form the acquaintance of any Boston Stage men, get on one of those stages running to Charlestown Bridge, or Chelsea Ferry, & enquire for Charley Hollis or Ed Morgan, mention my name, and introduce yourself as my friend.”

As for “Bardic Symbols,” it met with the same hostile newspaper critics as rejected the earlier Leaves of Grass editions. Henry Clapp wrote him that “[t]he papers all over the land have noticed your poem in the Atlantic and have generally pitched into it strong; which I take to be good for you and your new publishers, who if they move rapidly and concentrate their forces will make a Napoleonic thing of it.”

William Dean Howells in 1855. Click to enlarge.

But Howells, writing for the Daily Ohio State Journal (where his father first had his poems published when Howells was 15 and where Howells had been working for two years), gave a judicious review. The work, after all, was among the least daring of Whitman’s poems and would not even be controversial once the third edition of the collection was published with its Calamus poems. It had none of the self-promoting bravura that shocked conventional readers of the first collection. In fact, Whitman whistfully contemplates his own insignificance against the sea.

“I, too, am but a trail of drift and debris,—
I, too, leave little wrecks upon you, you fished-shaped island!”

(This is certainly less falsely modest than T.S. Eliot in the “What the Thunder Said” section of The Waste Land.) It has a sustained symbol throughout, unlike many of his poems and the symbol has many levels of meaning.  In Stanzas XIII and XIV he calls the sea “Father” and requests a kiss. It is a startling apostrophe and perhaps suggestive of his homoerotic longings.  These Stanzas are followed up with:

“Sea-raff! Torn leaves!
Oh, I sing, some day, what you have certainly said to me!”

In the 1860 Leaves of Grass version of the poem the verses are revised:

“Sea-raff! Crook-tongued waves!
O, I will yet sing, some day, what you have said to me.”

Is it too much to see another influence on Eliot?  Recall the ending of the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

“I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.”

(I will not belabor the comparison by pointing out the story from the Inferno in the Epigraph of Prufrock.)

In any event, Howells writes:

“No one, even after the fourth or fifth reading, can pretend to say what the ‘Bardic Symbols’ symbolize. The poet walks by the sea, and addressing the drift, the foam, the billows and the wind, attempts to force from them, by his frantic outcry, the … true solution of the mystery of Existence, always most heavily and darkly felt in the august ocean presence. All is confusion, waste and sound. It is in vain that you attempt to gather the poet’s full meaning from what he says or what he hints. You can only take refuge in occasional passages like this, in which he wildly laments the feebleness and inefficiency of that art which above all others seeks to make the soul visible and audible:

O, baffled, lost,
Bent to the very earth, here preceding what follows,
Terrified with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,
Aware now, that amid all the blab, whose echoes recoil
upon me, I have not once had the least idea who or
what I am,
But that before all my insolent poems the real one still stands untouched, untold, altogether unreached,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory
signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I
have written or shall write,
Striking me with insults till I fall helpless upon the sand.”

Howells compares this section with Tennyson’s poem “Break, break, break”:

“Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me!

An aspiration of mute words without relevancy, without absolute signification, and full of ‘divine despair.’

Howells was at the beginning of his career as well and would have no way of knowing that Whitman was to have much more in common with what would follow long after than what had just gone before.

Bardic Symbols

from Atlantic Monthly (April 1860)

by Walt Whitman


Oh, I wish I could impress others as you and the waves have just been impressing me!


As I ebbed with an ebb of the ocean of life,
As I wended the shores I know,
As I walked where the sea-ripples wash you, Paumanok,
Where they rustle up, hoarse and sibilant,
Where the fierce old mother endlessly cries for her castaways,
I, musing, late in the autumn day, gazing off southward,
Alone, held by the eternal self of me that threatens to get the better of me and stifle me,
Was seized by the spirit that trails in the lines underfoot,
In the ruin, the sediment, that stands for all the water and all the land of the globe.


Fascinated, my eyes, reverting from the south, dropped, to follow those slender windrows,
Chaff, straw, splinters of wood, weeds, and the sea-gluten,
Scum, scales from shining rocks, leaves of salt-lettuce, left by the tide.


Miles walking, the sound of breaking waves the other side of me,
Paumanok, there and then as I thought the old thought of likenesses,
These you presented to me, you fish-shaped island,
As I wended the shores I know,
As I walked with that eternal self of me, seeking types.


As I wend the shores I know not,
As I listen to the dirge, the voices of men and women wrecked,
As I inhale the impalpable breezes that set in upon me,
As the ocean so mysterious rolls toward me closer and closer,
At once I find, the least thing that belongs to me, or that I see or touch, I know not;
I, too, but signify a little washed-up drift,—a few sands and dead leaves to gather,
Gather, and merge myself as part of the leaves and drift.


Oh, baffled, lost,
Bent to the very earth, here preceding what follows,
Terrified with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,
Aware now, that, amid all the blab whose echoes recoil upon me, I have not once had the least idea who or what I am,
But that before all my insolent poems the real me still stands untouched, untold, altogether unreached,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I have written or shall write,
Striking me with insults, till I fall helpless upon the sand!


Oh, I think I have not understood anything,—not a single object,—and that no man ever can!


I think Nature here, in sight of the sea, is taking advantage of me to oppress me,
Because I was assuming so much,
And because I have dared to open my mouth to sing at all.


You oceans both! You tangible land! Nature!
Be not too stern with me,—I submit,—I close with you,—
These little shreds shall, indeed, stand for all.


You friable shore, with trails of debris!
You fish-shaped island! I take what is underfoot:
What is yours is mine, my father!


I, too, Paumanok,
I, too, have bubbled up, floated the measureless float, and been washed on your shores.


I, too, am but a trail of drift and debris,—
I, too, leave little wrecks upon you, you fished-shaped island!


I throw myself upon your breast, my father!
I cling to you so that you cannot unloose me,—
I hold you so firm, till you answer me something.


Kiss me, my father!
Touch me with your lips, as I touch those I love!
Breathe to me, while I hold you close, the secret of the wondrous murmuring I envy!
For I fear I shall become crazed, if I cannot emulate it, and utter myself as well as it.


Sea-raff! Torn leaves!
Oh, I sing, some day, what you have certainly said to me!


Ebb, ocean of life! (the flow will return,)—
Cease not your moaning, you fierce old mother!
Endlessly cry for your castaways! Yet fear not, deny not me,—
Rustle not up so hoarse and angry against my feet, as I touch you,or gather from you.


I mean tenderly by you,—
I gather for myself, and for this phantom, looking down where we lead, and following me and mine.


Me and mine!
We, loose windrows, little corpses,
Froth, snowy white, and bubbles,
Tufts of straw, sands, fragments,
Buoyed hither from many moods, one contradicting another,
From the storm, the long calm, the darkness, the swell,
Musing, pondering, a breath, a briny tear, a dab of liquid or soil,
Up just as much out of fathomless workings fermented and thrown,
A limp blossom or two, torn, just as much over waves floating, drifted at random,
Just as much for us that sobbing dirge of Nature,
Just as much, whence we come, that blare of the cloud-trumpets,—
We, capricious, brought hither, we know not whence, spread out before you,—you, up there, walking or sitting,
Whoever you are, we, too, lie in drifts at your feet.

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